Code Switch: Students’ Choice

CodeSwitchNational Public Radio presents several shows and podcasts of immense help in understanding issues of race, ethnicity, culture and identity, among the best being CODE SWITCH: Race and Identity Remixed.  This summer a dozen graduate students in my course Race, Ethnicity, and the American Experience chose a favorite Code Switch episode every week, and the list below begins with some of their picks.  By far the most picked episode is the first one on the list, the one about the indefensibility of cultural appropriation.

NotWhite2We all switch “codes”—that is, simply put, we know how to talk and act depending on the situation. You’re one way with your parents, for example, another way with your friends. Many also talk in “code,” so that your in-group understands fully, but outsiders—whoever those are—understand only partly, if at all. But for all minorities code switching grows more important—sometimes even becomes a matter of life and death—depending on their distance from being “white.”  ”Whiteness” is still at the center of American culture, though the recent resurgence in White Supremacy groups indicates an historic shift in the centrality of whiteness, a shift that goes deeper than the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.  He’s as much a symptom—though a very important symptom—as a cause of renewed racial hostility.  James Baldwin was more than 60 years ahead of the times when, in 1955, he wrote, “The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”  We’re in the midst of that shift now, and White Supremacists don’t like it, nor do they understand how much better things would be without their ideology.

PrivilegeAmerican blacks still remain the furthest away from whiteness, but Noel Ignatiev’s seminal 1995 book How the Irish Became White showed brilliantly that almost all “white” immigrant groups weren’t considered “white” at first, even though their skin was “white.”  They had to become white through a series of assimilations and accommodations, many enormously aided by something people of color  will never have: white skin.  In addition, Baldwin and many other writers have analyzed how the history and atrocity of slavery weighs so much on the national psyche—creates so much deep national guilt—that assimilation and accommodation become that much harder, especially for blacks, as long as White Supremacy remains a central tenet of our culture.  When that changes, their will be more space for everyone…including whites.  I have said for years that the new frontier of race/ethnicity studies should be white studies. If whites understood how their ancestors also struggled against White Supremacy—how they had to fight for “white privilege”—that would do much to help change our country’s racism and free whites in many deep, deep ways.

NPR’s Code Switch will help us along the way to a more spacious, inclusive America.  And, as some of this summer’s students reported, Code Switch will be adding an “Ask Code Switch” feature where you can ask questions about race and ethnicity.  Read about that HERE. And check out the following links for some important reading and listening.


Among NPR’s many other diversity programs is Parallels: One World, Many Stories, like this story about Feminist Film in India.

Go to the Teaching Diversity page on this site.  For a very famous take on how White Supremacy works in every day life, see an article on “The Invisible Knapsack” by Peg McIntosh.

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A Low Water Man

—This articles is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay

“Leave the astronauts out of it, or the paratroop teams that free-fall for 10,000 feet…Leave out the six people who have survived the 220-foot fall from the Golden Gate Bridge, and the divers of Acapulco, who swan dive 118 feet…Leave out even the ordinary high diver,” writes Edward Hoagland to begin a classic Sports Illustrated essay.  In “A Low Water Man” he wants us to, “Come down from such lofty characters to Henri LaMothe—who on his seventieth birthday…dove from a 40-foot ladder into a play pool of water 12 inches deep.”


The essay is full of quirky facts about LaMothe, a Chicagoan: his association with the Art Institute, how he got his nickname—Frenchy—how he quit jobs so he could be a full-time competitive Charleston dancer, etc., but no fact is stranger than his explanation of the essential technique of diving from higher and higher heights into shallower and shallower pools of water.  Counter-intuitively you survive by sticking your vitals—your stomach and genitals—out, flying spread-eagle, back arched, stomach bowed downward, looking a bit frog-like as you do the biggest belly flop in history.  His eventual goal, to jump from 50-feet into a 6-inch kiddie pool with break-away sides, creating the illusion of diving into nothing at all.  I don’t know of any actual videos of LaMothe, but others—imitators all, I presume—have since taken LaMothe’s lead.  You can watch one—Professor Splash—explain the technique then dive 35-feet into a shallow pool as the audience explodes into gasps of disbelief, then applause.

The end of the LaMothe dive pictured above.

The end of the LaMothe dive pictured above.

In my first piece on a Hoagland essay—his classic “The Courage of Turtles“—I speak about a tension central to nearly all of Hoagland’s greatest essays, the tension between Connection and Disconnection.  I imagine it would be hard not to gasp at LaMothe’s feat, but because of this Connection-Disconnection theme Hoagland downplays any applause there might have been.  ”A Low Water Man” ends this way:

“Since the death wish of a daredevil who is seventy years old must be fairly well under control, perhaps the best explanation for why he continues is that this is what he is good at.  Humiliation is a very good school for clowns, and, watching him, as with certain other notable clowns, one is swept with a tenderness for him as he lands, God’s Fool, safe and sound and alive once again.  As with them, our fascination is enhanced because at the  time he has sought our applause, he has seemed to try to obscure our appreciation, make the venture difficult for us to understand, and thereby escape our applause—a ‘low water man.’”

Connection-Disconnection centers most of Hoagland’s greatest essays in ways I allude to in “The Courage of Turtles.”  Also, as I say there, it is no more central and moving than in “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain,” where Hoagland also explains how this theme is deeply rooted in his own being.

 Go to the Lead Post in The Arts of the Essay, and to articles on Hoagland’s “The Courage of Turtles,” “Dogs and the Tug of Life,” “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain.”


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The Courage of Turtles

Hoagland-TurtlesThis article is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay.


“Turtles are a kind of bird with the governor turned low.”  That’s the first sentence of one of Edward Hoagland’s signature essays, “The Courage of Turtles.”  In the last sentence of the first paragraph he says that through amber water they’re “big as greeny wash basins,” and thus the onslaught of metaphors and similes about turtles begins.  And not only of turtles.  Haogland describes snakes—in contrast to turtles, which he thinks are “personable beasts”—as “dryly silent and priapic…smooth movers, legalistic.” Most of the comparisons fall on turtles, however, partly because for Hoagland they “manage to contain the rest of the animal world.”

Their legs are “cruelly positioned for walking,” but turtles “keep plugging along, rolling like sailorly souls.” They stick their necks out like giraffes, have a penguin’s alertness, graze like a cow moose, remind him of a Brontosaurus “when they rise up on tiptoe,” or a lion the way they stare at the sun. They can also “loom underwater like an apocryphal hippo”—not just like a hippo, but an apocryphal one, whatever that means, though that may be easier to understand than this, when he’s describing his adult wood turtle (whose shell is “the equal of any seashell for sculpturing, even a Cellini shell”): “She can walk on the floor in perfect silence, but usually lets her shell knock portentously, like a footstep, so that she resembles some grand, concise, slow-moving id.”  Just putting those last five words together like that: grand/concise, slow-moving/id!

Hoagland1The essay, like many Hoagland pieces, is environmental at its core. Humans encroaching on their land, humans feeding them all the wrong stuff, humans misunderstanding their nature as pets—painting on their shells, for example, which stunts the shell’s growth so that their insides slowly crush them to death as they grow—all these require that “courage” to survive.

One day he’s walking on First Avenue and notices a basket of live turtles.  They’re “creeping over one another gimpily, doing their best to escape.”  Thinking they’re wood turtles, his favorite, he buys one, only to discover on closer inspection at home that it’s a diamond-back terrapin, bad news as it needs brackish water.  He tries raising him, but finds “his unrelenting presence exasperating” and finally carries him to the Morton Street Pier on the Hudson and dumps him in on a gray, windy August day.  The essay ends: “Too late, I realized that he wouldn’t be able to swim to a peaceful inlet in New Jersey, even if he could figure out which way to swim. But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.”

Hoagland seems to know everything there is to know about turtles and has showered them thickly with all kinds of wonderful, strange comparisons, so the ending is doubly, triply shocking—perhaps because it’s so matter-of-fact, so oh-well.  And it highlights what’s at the core of so many great essayists: a central tension they obsess over. For Hoagland it’s the tension between connection and disconnection.  His detailed knowledge of turtles, all those metaphors and similes—that’s connection: strong, creative, empathetic.  But then there’s the sudden disconnect.  Oh, well.  In “In the Toils of the Law” he tells about his jury duty experience, praising the idea that we’re all entitled to a trial by a jury of our peers; but by the end you realize that so many cases don’t reach a jury at all. A judge declares mistrials; lawyers plea bargain them away.  In “A Low Water Man,” a famous Sports Illustrated piece, Hoagland writes about Henri LaMothe, whose act is to dive from higher and higher platforms into less and less water, a feat that both solicits our applause, but—because of its very bizarreness—prevents us from clapping that hard, if at all.  In “Dogs and the Tug of Life,” we want to connect with dogs, yet they are becoming “a bridge to nowhere.”

These central tensions often lead to profound ironies, and certainly surprises, that probe deeply into the complexity and ambiguity of life.  Every good essay needs a central tension to hold it together.  For great writers these central tensions, as I said, are obsessions—and the greater the writer, the greater the obsession, it seems—but they are also the font of their insight and creativity.  Connection-Disconnection is everywhere in Hoagland, and perhaps nowhere more bizarrely and movingly than in “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain.”

 This article is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay.  Go to the series’ Lead Post.

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